Selfish Genes: is the idea anti-biblical? What should Christians think of it?
Published: 13 October 2007 (GMT+10)
Renee V of Florida, USA, wrote asking about the ‘selfish gene’ theory, saying:
‘Someone at CMI really, really, really needs to write a comprehensive article on the Selfish Gene Theory. I saw on your site where someone else asked about it (http://www.creation.com/article/5336/) but there isn't much more than a passing mention of it in any of the articles on your site and the "Just So Stories" article only refers to the theory's use from a sociobiological point of view. I'm running into it in my online college course Principles of Fish & Wildlife Conservation. I would highly recommend that someone do an in depth review of the theory and its many applications (not just regarding social mores) and post an article for poor souls like myself and the medical student in the link above. Thanks much.’
Dr Carl Wieland writes expounding in more detail on aspects of the ‘selfish gene’ concept, asking whether it is something to ‘refute’ as such, or whether it’s all in how one looks at it.
Because the ‘selfish gene’ concept has been promoted by aggressive anti-Christian evolutionists, notably Richard Dawkins, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk response ‘against’ it, understandably looking for some sort of ‘refutation’.
But actually, I want to suggest that it’s not a threatening concept at all for the biblical creationist, and has considerable validity in its own terms. I want to show by some brief discussion that ‘selfish genes’ is really simply an ‘abstract framework’, a way of thinking about natural selection, which helps us to understand that natural selection can achieve (limited) adaptive ‘ends’ without conscious planning.
Now, as we have shown repeatedly, natural selection (which was first thought of and written about by a creationist, Edward Blyth, before Darwin, who may have borrowed heavily from him) is a simple fact. It does not in any way involve the sorts of information-adding change needed to turn microbes into magnolias, manatees and microbiologists. In fact, natural selection invariably involves a culling or loss of information, so it’s going in the wrong direction, anyway. See Muddy Waters and The Evolution Train’s A-comin’.
So since natural selection is a non-threatening fact to the biblical creationist, then if one can show that the selfish gene concept (it may be endowing it with undeserved status to refer to it as selfish gene ‘theory’) is simply a valid alternative way of looking at natural selection, the same holds true for the selfish gene concept as for selection itself, i.e. it’s no big deal and does not require some sort of ‘refutation’. What it does need is rather an explanation and clarification so that people don’t think that demonstrating ‘selfish genes’ somehow validates goo-to-you evolution.
An example would be in order. There are several parasites that complete their life cycle in more than one organism. One of these is Toxoplasma gondii, that causes the disease toxoplasmosis. Many have heard of this because sometimes humans catch this disease from cats (babies can be infected in the womb). The parasite’s life cycle involves mice as well as cats. The parasite passes from the mouse to the next part of its life cycle as the cat eats the mouse.
Clearly, any programmed behaviour which makes it more likely for an infected mouse to be eaten by a cat will benefit the parasite, by making it more likely to be able to reproduce (complete its life cycle) in a cat. In what is not the only example of this kind, it has been shown that mice infected with Toxoplasma are more likely to exhibit behaviour changes that make it easier for cats to catch and eat them.1 In other words, the parasite somehow induces changes in the brain of the mouse to get the rodent to engage in risky behaviour, in effect committing feline-assisted suicide.
One can readily assume that this simple little parasite does not consciously plan this way of getting to have more of its offspring make it to the next generation. Rather, it is almost certainly the result of natural selection favouring certain types of genetic program (‘genes’) over others, as follows.
Assume (simplistically) that there is a single gene ‘X’ that a Toxoplasma parasite can possess which programs it to routinely manipulate the mouse’s brain in this way. A parasite with this gene is going to have more success in passing on all its genes to the next generation, obviously. Which means that gene X itself is more likely to be passed on, too. In time, the parasites with gene X will out-compete those without.
Now the ‘selfish gene concept’ (SGC) is really saying, ‘Wait a minute, there’s another way of looking at it—not from the parasite’s point of view, but from the point of view of gene X itself.’ In a mental viewpoint shift, they are pointing out that the presence of gene X causes the survival and flourishing of gene X. So that is why gene X is seen as ‘selfish’—because it functions to ensure its own survival and multiplication.
One can therefore summarise the whole SGC quite prosaically as follows: Any gene which makes it more likely for its possessor organism to survive/reproduce is itself more likely to increase its numbers. This is a straightforward, self-evidently true notion, so I trust it’s obvious why I question the idea of ‘refuting’ the SGC per se.
Naturally, calling a gene ‘selfish’ implies motive. We have already seen that the parasite does not consciously ‘plan’ this differential survival strategy, and even less so can this be true for a gene, just a piece of code. SGC promoters are aware of this, and are not saying otherwise, even though it might seem that way. To refer to the gene as being ‘interested in its own survival’ is for them merely an abstraction, a useful way of considering the whole picture.
It can’t be emphasized enough that this is a mental construct, not some sort of ‘new truth’; just another way of looking at the same set of facts. Enthusiasts have waxed eloquent about the bodies of organisms being mere robotic vehicles for these selfish genes to use for their own propagation. Accustomed as we are to wanting to categorize things as true or false, it’s often important to remember that a lot of this is just word games, and to always be prepared to keep a handle on what is actually happening and distinguish it from what is merely a conceptual strategy by us, the observers/describers of the process.
Evolutionists themselves argue about whether selection operates at the level of genes, or the level of whole organisms, or even at the species level. I would suggest that there is validity in all of these concepts, and that they are not mutually exclusive. Organisms are described/constructed/programmed by genes, and when organisms reproduce/survive it involves the reproduction/survival of genes. Equally, genes cannot reproduce without whole organisms reproducing themselves, and in turn, species cannot survive or reproduce without the survival/reproduction of individual organisms.2
Of course, the SGC serves to even more starkly highlight the unplanned, undesigned nature of the adaptation process via natural selection. So because evolutionists routinely muddy the waters between selection as a simple process and the whole Darwinian common descent paradigm, the SGC is a useful tool in the hands of evolutionary propagandists to keep on reinforcing their teaching that the origin of all living creatures is itself unplanned and undesigned. This is why it is easy for Christians to react against the SGC, rather than seeing it for what it should rightly be limited to—a mere alternative way of looking at a straightforward, factual process: natural selection. Wherever the SGC is used inappropriately to propagandize for evolution itself, Christians should be quick to point out the way in which natural selection is not evolution, and that the same reasoning applies whether or not one chooses to use the SGC framework of thinking about the process.
Yours sincerely in Christ,
- Joanne P. Webster, The effect of Toxoplasma gondii on animal behavior: playing cat and mouse, Schizophrenia Bulletin 33(3):752–756, May 2007, <http://schizophreniabulletin.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/33/3/752>. For another example involving ants, see the section on p. 398 of Parasitism: The Diversity and Ecology of Animal Parasites, involving the parasite Dicrocoelium dendriticum. Return to Text.
- To avoid further confusion about the idea of ‘selfishness’ being attributed to a string of code, it might be better for evolutionists and creationists to preferentially use terms such as ‘gene selection’. But the notion of ‘selfish genes’ is now so entrenched in evolutionary lore that it is unlikely to disappear. Return to Text.